Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK
Until 21st July, 2012
You go to D+V Management’s website. Ellen von Unwerth being European, you select the London option rather than USA. You go to Artists + Production, then to Photographers. The list is alphabetical. Few of the names mean an awful lot and at the bottom is Ellen’s. Out of idle curiosity, to see if she’s also listed under USA, you give that a go as well. This time, at the top of the list, is Ellen von Unwerth. Funnily enough, the US list is also alphabetical, but here an exception appears to be made to give prominence to one of the most talented and commercially successful fashion photographers, male or female, of the last 20+ years.
Circus performer, turned model – she modelled for 10 years – turned photographer, Von Unwerth (54) learned how to use a camera from her photographer boyfriend and – after an early shoot with a then unknown Claudia Schiffer for the jeans company Guess? that shot her to fame – quickly became sought after by magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview, The Face and i-D. There followed album cover work for Duran Duran, Janet Jackson and later Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, then Rhianna. Among many other celebrities von Unwerth has photographed Kate Moss, Vanessa Paradis, Lindsay Lohan, Dita von Teese, Carla Bruni, Eva Green and Monica Bellucci. Many of these appeared in Fraülein her celebration of our era’s sexiest female icons (Taschen, 2009). Ever popular with the international fashion crowd, she is listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 Fashion Icons. Her major advertising campaigns include Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, Lacoste, Diesel, and Chanel. Her acclaimed photo-novella Revenge (Twin Palms, 2002) was accompanied by exhibitions in New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Moscow and Beijing. She’s directed film, too, for fashion houses and made commercials for Revlon and Clinique.
Apart from the up-dating of the fashion content – and much the same could be said of the work of German-Austrian photographer Helmut Newton, who died in 2004 and with whom Frankfurt-born von Unwerth draws obvious comparisons and who she herself has cited as an influence – there is little to differentiate her current work from that which she produced at the start of her career as a photographer. In her case, that’s a good thing because in an era where the real world takes Botox and cosmetic sugery for granted and the imagined world of fashion photography is dominated by artifice – digital images are often retouched to such a degree that the models become little more than sexless avatars, posed within hyper-real environments – von Unwerth’s work remains fresh, genuine, unaffected and good fun. Undoubtedly, to a large degree, this is the result of her continuing preference for using 35mm film cameras. Indeed she was recently quoted in an interview for the online photography magazine, Faded + Blurred, as having said that digital cameras produce images with too much information, that are too sharp, and that you have to spend too much time trying to make them look good. Digital shutters, she has said, have a very slight delay, causing her to miss the shot she has in her head.
In my previous post I wrote about American photographer Ralph Gibson’s photography and described how his pictures appear to exude a close understanding of female sexuality. Von Unwerth’s images are the real deal; the playfulness, the larking around, the intimacy, the very feminine take on erotic fantasy are the result of having a woman, rather than a man, behind the camera. And the the new work doesn’t disappoint; Do Not Disturb! exhibited at London’s prestigious Michael Hoppen Gallery, narrative images shot against the décor of some of the unique and fantastical rooms at the famous Madonna Inn – located mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco – is executed in the signature sexy, provocative and imaginative style one expects from the female photographer at the top of my list.
Images from top
Room 77, 2012 © Ellen Von Unwerth
A recent portrait of photographer, Ellen von Unwerth
Room 100, 2012 © Ellen Von Unwerth
All images (except portrait) from the series Do Not Disturb!